Today’s read is from one of my favorite nonfiction writers; it’s Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. While the description on Goodreads is long, I think it captures the book well:
On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.
Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love.
Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.
I’m delighted to give Dead Wake five out of five stars.
I would say that Erik Larson gained national attention when The Devil in the White City began to gain traction with readers throughout the country. While it was published in 2002, I remember hearing about it first some time after that, and finally delving into it a few years ago. It was my first foray into serious nonfiction and I was spellbound.
The same engrossing prose that Larson employed in The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts is present in Dead Wake. The difference is that the audience is largely familiar with the outcome of the last voyage of the Lusitania. That said, I would say that knowing where we would end up (similarly to In the Garden of Beasts) made Dead Wake all the more enjoyable.
Within the book’s pages, you are treated to a marvelous description of everything from psychology to social dynamics to basic engineering. Larson is able to break complex human concepts and ideas into a digestible format for the non-scientific and non-historically savvy community. Even as someone who is somewhat historically savvy, I enjoyed this tremendously.
I would say that in many books, we read to find the ending; to experience the catharsis or watch the fireworks. Dead Wake is one of those books that celebrates the journey, and does so in a way that spins nonfiction into inspiring prose, and a story you’re hellbent on reading. Erik Larson is uniquely able to do this, and it is incredible to witness as one of his readers. For others who are interested in nonfiction, and particularly historical nonfiction, this is a must-read.